Coming out of Flight
Coming out of Flight
There are so many temptations to be afraid. Particularly as a society so alienated from connection, ambiguous stimuli (things that are unknown, or that could be one thing or another) are often interpreted as threats. Part of this is physiological, part of it is rooted in prior trauma, and part of it is related to how we’ve been socialized, as well as the media and news we’ve been exposed to, which are often biased and xenophobic. Here we are, humans, each one of us, really not in control, spinning on a giant sphere with a molten core, hurtling through space as it orbits the sun at 67,000 miles per hour, in a solar system moving through the galaxy at 515,000 miles per hour, in a galaxy hurtling through the universe at 1.3 million miles per hour, in a world where we literally have no idea what is going to happen one millisecond in the future. And yet, somehow we think we are in control. All around us there is novelty, but novelty requires that we pay attention, and most of us are intent on not paying attention. Novelty requires that we orient toward what is new with curiosity. And yet most of us are busily dissociated, buried in the programs of our daily lives, getting the kids off to school, paying the bills, streaming Netflix. Anxiety is very useful to capitalism. People who are anxious and off-balance are in a neural platform defined by the search for a threat, and they are searching for ways to make themselves less anxious, so they make good consumers. It’s all about the economy, stupid. Only it isn’t.
Let’s start with the obvious. How do you know you are in flight? Not mildly, but really in it? Answer: your heart. When you actually go into a sympathetic response, your heart will involuntarily speed up to the point that it is pounding, and you can feel it. If your heart is doing this, and your body isn’t moving, you just shifted neural platforms. What just happened? When we are in a resting state, with a neuroception (often unconscious, bodily felt awareness) of safety, the ventral vagal influence on the heart slows it down. Neural regulation of the heart is accomplished by the sinoatrial node, the pacemaker of the heart, which is also known as the vagal brake, and which actually receives neural inputs from three distinct autonomic neural circuits. These are the ventral vagal, the sympathetic, and the dorsal vagal. Each of these circuits has a specific impact on the rate and pattern of the heartbeat. Ventral vagal and dorsal vagal circuits, which are both parasympathetic, slow the heart down, albeit in different patterns. The sympathetic circuit speeds the heart up. When we feel safe, the ventral vagal system is holding down the vagal brake, slowing and regulating the heart. When we experience a neuroception of threat, the ventral vagal system begins to withdraw, the vagal brake begins to lift, and the heart begins to accelerate under the influence of the sympathetic system.
Let’s take this out of the abstract and talk about a situation you may have experienced, so that you can get a feel for what we are talking about. Let’s say that you are out for the evening with a few friends, in a city, walking from the restaurant where you just had dinner to the theatre where you are going to see a show. You care about your friends, you’ve just been eating a salty meal together, you are feeling relaxed and warm and safe with them, and you are in the middle of a long conversation. It’s about 9 pm, and you are walking down a street with enough light that you can see the shadow of every blade of grass. The theatre is a few blocks jag from the restaurant, and to cut your walking time, you and your friends turn down a side street to shave a block off your walk. (If, as you are reading this, you are already starting to feel nervous, you are experiencing that neuroception of threat.) If this is happening, ask yourself what it is about this story that is giving you that anticipatory threat response – I would propose to you that it is multi-layered: personal experience, media you’ve consumed, priming, etc.) As you turn a corner, you suddenly and inexplicably get the sense that you are being watched. You swallow hard. You abruptly find that you are unable to hear your friends’ voices, and you find yourself scanning the street in the direction that you sensed you were being observed, although you don’t have a clear sense of why you’ve looked in that particular direction. Something in your body seems to have taken over. Your friends notice that you are distracted, they notice the fearful look on your face, and the conversation fizzles and dies. You notice heavy movement in a large hedge about fifty feet ahead on your right. By this point your heart-rate has accelerated, and your legs are beginning to tingle. One of your friends rather drags you off the sidewalk and you cross to the other side of the street at an angle, without taking your eyes off the bush, still moving forward. This entire process represents what is called preparatory orienting, a physiological detection and organizing response to impending threat. As you pass the hedge, from the other side of the street, you find your heart racing, that your body is ready to run. It feels like your muscles are wired to a hair trigger. You can feel yourself sweating, and you can smell your own musk. At this point, a (fill in the blank) steps out of the bushes, and you heave a giant sigh of relief. It was only a (fill in the blank).
If you are reading this, and you’re mad at me for having a (fill in the blank) hiding in the bushes of this story, good on ya. Your body wants to have it identified, because it’s trying to fill in the blanks in the story so that you can interpret it. Yet for our purposes, this is exactly the point. The point physiologically is not what it was that emerged from the bushes, but that you didn’t know what it was, and that this novelty (ambiguous stimulus in a particular context) elicited certain cues. Why did it elicit those cues? Would it have elicited them in broad daylight? In a suburb? Well, it’s night time, and humans, since the beginning of time, have been more vulnerable at night. We have seen and heard hundreds, if not thousands, of stories about people being mugged, stabbed, or robbed in a city at night. I also used about seven words to prime you for the suggestion that we were about to encounter someone with a knife. While in this situation, the priming happened through words, in a real-life situation, the priming might have happened through other contextual clues. It might also have happened through your own unconscious bias.
The point, however, if that there may not have been any danger at all. Whatever was in that bush may have been completely innocuous. Because sometimes our neuroception is wrong (as in unconscious bias), and yet, even so, when we change neural platforms of behavior, it literally changes what we see, hear, and feel, as well as how we interpret situations. This is important because it can distort our experiences. Neuroception is not always accurate. Yet it is our biological shorthand, and it operates along the discernment of our most fundamental original language: distinguishing between safety (baseline) and threat (alarm).
So, when we think and talk about coming out of flight, the first question that we need to ask ourselves is, What is the threat? Sometimes, this is perfectly obvious, e.g., when someone is trying to physically harm us. But there are many things that we can perceive as threats that are not actually dangerous. Many things that we perceive as threats may be uncomfortable, but are not actually threats. One example is being told you are behaving in a racist way. For many people (white people in particular), that is experienced as being a threat. How dare you! But it’s not actually a threat. It may be a threat to how we see ourselves, but that is different. It’s uncomfortable, and we don’t want to hear it, but it isn’t a danger to us, because it doesn’t accord with how we experience ourselves, but it isn’t a threat. Another example is being corrected by a boss. Uncomfortable, not dangerous. (Clearly if your boss is vengeful or keeping score or setting you up for failure, it could be dangerous. But if your boss is actually a good mentor, trying to help you improve, being corrected may still be very uncomfortable, but it’s not a danger.) If we perceive something that is not actually a threat as a threat, that’s a good indication that there is something habitual going on with us that requires further investigation.
Sometimes we are threatened by something internal. We might, for example, have a flight response to an emotion that we are experiencing that we don’t know how to deal with. I might, conceivably, have a flight response to my own grief. I want to take a moment to elucidate this, because it is so important. Many of us are not good at actually being in our bodies, actually being present to our emotions, or allowing ourselves to experience them. We don’t have moment-to-moment contact with them, we don’t know how to allow them to move through us, and we don’t know how to receive the information in them and make use of it. As a result, some of us, when we have a strong emotion, experience this as a threat. We have a neuroception of danger to our own internal emotional response.
If I feel a wave of sadness because, for example, I have experienced a loss, and I live in a culture and a context that doesn’t have grief rituals, where I don’t have a community of support, where I don’t feel connected, or like anybody knows me well, or actually sees me for who I am–or truly values me–I may have a neuroception of danger to my own interoception (inwardly oriented felt awareness, in this case of emotion). Sadness is a call for affiliation, but in a disconnected culture where we don’t have a tribe, this can be really frightening. My body may then shift my neural platform of behavior to flight, as if this would allow me to actually run away from myself. This is what the sympathetic platforms do: they are high-energy states that re-tune the body to promote movement. The problem here, a serious problem, as it is so common in our society—is that it is not possible to run away from yourself without either dissociating, or losing touch with a deep sense of who you are. At this point, with the experience of grief, problematically, by having a flight response to my own emotion, I’ve further removed myself from the grief that needs to be attended to. If this is something we do habitually, the slightest emotional upset can trigger us into neural platforms of defense, into flight, which may simply present as anxiety. For many people who are described in psychological parlance as “conflict-avoidant,” it is driven by some version of this. The simple presence of strong emotion elicits a neuroception of danger, and the person just wants to get away. Another common coping strategy is addiction. Something arises internally that I don’t want to be viscerally present to, and so I use a substance to modify my internal experience. This is so common in our culture that everyone knows the phrase, “I need a drink.” People say this casually when something stressful happens without fully acknowledging what it actually means: I don’t know how to be present with some aspect of my internal experience, so I’m going to self-medicate to make it go away. Of course, this doesn’t actually work. It just trains us to be disconnected. This pattern can develop through childhood exposure to violence, or conflict as well. Better to build resilience and mindfulness, the capacity to befriend, attend to, and be present to our own emotions.
If we come from the orientation that our bodies are highly intelligent, that sensations and emotions are not arbitrary (they aren’t), and that detection of safety isn’t meaningless (it isn’t), then we can begin to extend curiosity toward our responses. I think it needs to be said here that it is possible to live in your body and experience this as pleasurable. I’m going to say this again, in a slightly different way, because it is so important. A hallmark of modernity is that people do not live in their bodies. They live in their thoughts. Modernity is the location of identity in thought, rather than the felt experience of the body. I think, therefore I am. This is modern society distilled into a one-liner. Thank you Descartes. The problem is that this isn’t true.
You feel, therefore you are. But not in a tactile sense, not feel as in touch. You feel yourself, therefore you are. We have a problem with language here, because English doesn’t permit a reflexive verb construction that would reference the subject back to ourselves. Other romance languages have a reflexive verb construct: if feel is sentir, the reflexive construct would be se sentir. It’s the difference between getting dressed (vestir) and dressing myself (se vestir). What indigenous thought has always said is I feel myself, therefore I am. And yet, even this isn’t quite right, because if we actually feel ourselves, interoceptively, if we actually occupy our own bodies, our own sensations, our own emotions, this connects us to others, and to everything. If we locate our identities in our feeling self, and we listen, we become connected to everything. So better: I feel, therefore I am. This is the origin of indigenous intelligence that Ilarion Merculieff talks about when he says that in the West (modernity), we are told that intelligence comes from thinking, but that in indigenous culture they know that intelligence begins when thinking stops. When we drop into this feeling place, when we center ourselves here, in our bodies, in the present moment, we are connected. And it is possible to live, from this place in our bodies, connected, being love. We can do this, and live from this place, and it can feel indescribably amazing.
Modern people have been locked out of their bodies by trauma, and so don’t know that you can occupy your body, and that it can feel good. Because part of the reason people leave their bodies is because they don’t know how to be in them in a way that doesn’t feel bad. Part of what we are teaching, in this work, is the technology of how to be in our bodies in a way that feel good, and that centers them as the root of our intelligence and ways of knowing. This means turning back towards the felt experience of the body as something meaningful, and learning to work with it in a different way. If we go into flight, there’s usually a reason, even if we are not consciously aware of it. We have experienced something that makes us feel unsafe. With all defensive platforms (appease, fight, flight, freeze, shutdown) the questions we must ask are: What made me feel unsafe? Why? And how do I get safe again?
There are so many things, on the daily, that are subject to making us feel unsafe. We are surrounded, especially in these uncertain times, by cues of threat. These can unfold in a micro-second, and range from global warming and pandemics to being cat-called in the street, or watching the stock market drop. We talk a great deal in public health about equity, and about disparities of wealth and disparities of access to resources, such as housing, stable employment, and healthy food. What we don’t often hear are broad policy discussions about the inequitable distribution of safety in our society. Yet this gets at the heart of the matter.
We live in a world where there is profoundly inequitable distribution of safety. This disparity undergirds other forms of oppression. Our society prioritizes the safety of some groups at the direct expense of the safety of others. Many in our society endure, on a daily basis, a systemic lack of safety. Living in hetero-normative, cis-gender, patriarchal, white supremacist societies, those of us who are queer, women, and brown are structurally unsafe because our perspectives are not centered. When the norms, the baselines, do not represent us, our safety is not assured. And so many of us live with a neuroception of danger because the world is dangerous to us. We endure ruptures of safety, and micro-ruptures on the daily.
I’m often troubled by a lack of awareness and sensitivity to these issues in the mindfulness movement. It’s obvious that, in the U.S., this movement has primarily been driven by white people, because only in a white supremacist society unaware of its own whiteness would strangers in a public space be directed to close their eyes before they knew their neighbors. As a white man, it is generally safe for me to close my eyes in public, because as a white man I mobilize the institutional violence of the state. If you encounter me, a white man, in public, you don’t want to mess with me, because this can be very dangerous for you (if you are not a white man). But for women and for people of color, this safety is actively undermined. As a person who isn’t a white heterosexual male with gender-normative appearance, closing your eyes in public can have disastrous consequences. To direct someone who isn’t feeling safe to close their eyes is to put them into active conflict with their biology, for when we sense threat, our biology is oriented toward sourcing the danger. We do this by searching for it visually. We need a mindfulness movement that speaks neurophysiology, that is polyvagally-informed, and that understands how to support a felt sense of safety in a multi-cultural society where trauma is the norm, not the exception. A mindfulness movement that understands that the first directive, in a room full of people of strangers, should be Take a look around.
And here, we are oriented toward another path out of flight, which is to give our bodies permission to actively orient toward threat. This is an embodied process, and is as simple, in novel environments, as letting our eyes go where they want to go and notice what they want to notice. We have to scan for danger; it is a biological imperative. Until we have scanned, we can’t actually relax. Like most of our conceptualization of restorative practices, we are talking about bringing our embodied self back into the equation.
What’s the news?
Where do we hold anxiety in the body? I’m writing this particular section in March of 2020, at the onset of the outbreak in the United States of COVID-19. About three weeks ago, I took the New York Times app off of my phone. I had noticed that the last twenty times I opened it, it made me anxious. Is the world really getting worse? I don’t know. But what I do know is that every time I watch the news, or read the New York Times, it amplifies what is getting worse. Most media is an anxiety amplification system. This leads me back to the question: what is news? Another way of asking this is, What is noteworthy and useful for me to know that helps me to be adaptively oriented toward my context? It is a biological imperative to know this. As social animals, we need to be aware of what is happening in our surroundings. Yet what, actually, are our surroundings? I think there’s a valid argument to be made that global news stories constitute a relevant part of what we need to know. In an inter-connected world, a global economy where trade policy with China may directly impact my local shop, the developments unfolding on the global political, economic, and public health stage are probably relevant. But then there comes a question of calibration, because how relevant is it actually? When 19 of the 20 leading news stories are about COVID-19, is it actually news anymore? How deeply does it actually impact my daily experience? A useful experiment, if you are the type who likes to experiment with things, is to stop watching the news and see what happens to you. Do you lose adaptational awareness of your context? For me, personally, a far more useful context than global economic news is the hyper-local context of the news in my own backyard. I would propose to you that knowing which birds are at my feeder, knowing what time the sun rises and sets, what phase the moon is in, is just as relevant to my daily life–if not more so–than the news coming from the New York Times. But Gabriel, you say, that’s because you teach nature awareness. No, it’s the opposite. I teach nature awareness because my experience is that I’m far more useful to myself and everyone else when the news I’m aware of is taking place in my backyard rather than making the cover of the Times. This is because what my news tells me is generally grounding and calming, and puts me into connection states, whereas the Times does the opposite. Because story follows state, I know that when I’m feeling safe and connected, I experience a world where this possibility exists, and then I can create, and co-create, a world organized around connection. I know also that when I’m in a threat response, and a defensive state, what I notice around me is a world of danger, and what I create in my life is a defense against it. Let me make this very simple. If I have three seconds left, and am standing 10 feet from someone else I can’t see clearly, and I’m holding a seed and a rock, in a world where my connection system is online, I’ll plant the seed. In a world where my threat response is online, I’ll throw the rock. In neither case do I actually know whether that person was smiling at me, or getting ready to hurt me. And incredibly, planting that seed is probably more likely to disarm them than the rock will.
As I said at the beginning of this section–there are so many temptations to be afraid. At an embodied level, there is often a sensate anxiety that when I pursue through meditation I discover to be without an object. It is simply fear. The deeper I follow it down to the roots of sensation, the more I am aware that it is looking for something to attach to, and that I can write the story of that, I can decide that there is a threat, there is an object, there is something that I’m afraid of, or I can recognize that it is just a vibration. If I follow it deeper and deeper into my body, deeper and deeper into my breath, I find that this is simply a deep conditioning. What am I afraid of, ultimately? The unknown: death. And beneath this? We are deeply afraid of actually living. We are, most of us, deeply, unconsciously afraid of actually living. Of actually being okay.
Look–these are words on a page. I have no investment in you taking my word for it. Explore this for yourself. Sit with the vibration of fear in the body. Bring the regulation of your breath to it. I’m not saying here that there aren’t things that we should, legitimately be afraid of. The world is not, for many of us, a safe place. There are threats internal and external, uncertainties. There are justifiable concerns about our livelihood and our reputation. About climate change, politics. At the heart of it, though, in the furnace of the real, each one of us is very small. We’re here for a blindingly brief moment in the cosmic span. And this universe is deeply elegant, mysterious, and buzzing with awareness. Life is a school. Our job is to wake up, to shed the petty, to awaken from the distractions. Seize this moment and choose love. Choose life. Grab on to it as if your life itself depended on it, and do not let go. Find your center.
Related Practices:See Calming Anxiety. See Release Fear. See Grounding. See Allow Yourself to Grieve. See Learn to Set Clear Boundaries. See Boxing. If you'd like a brief introduction to the Polyvagal theory, visit our Brief Illustrated Guide to Polyvagal Theory. For our complete film about the Polyvagal Theory, see The Science of Safety (Polyvagal Theory). For a comprehensive exploration of the theory with its developer, see The Future of Medicine and Mental Health, with Dr. Stephen Porges, PhD. See Clinical Applications of Polyvagal Theory. See Autonomic Mapping. With regard to healing traumas see Healing Trauma.
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